For most kids, play dates can be fun. You get dropped off at a friend’s house, play a few games, maybe have lunch or a snack that Mom prepared, the go play in the backyard, watch TV or play video games, then get picked up and go back home. Sounds like fun, right? But for a lot of people, what they fondly remember were long days spent playing with friends in an unstructured manner. You’d go to the park and swing on the big swingset, roam the neighborhood, ride bikes all over town, sneak into the kitchen and cook some hot dogs for lunch, then just hang out and build a fort in the backyard with things you’d find in the garage.
Organized “play dates” can ease a parent’s mind that their children are safe and are having experiences that conform to their expectations of knowledge and culture. Look at it from the boy perspective, however, and to them, these things appear like more structure of the type they already have in their lives, between school, extracurricular activities, sports and, yes, even “play dates” – though that term fades as they get older.
What boys really want is to play unstructured, where they have more of a say in when and what they do and how they go about it. It’s natural in a young person’s development: curiosity about themselves and the world around them and the thrill of discovery. When we adults put structure on their play, it’s like putting shrink-wrap on a package. Yes, the package still has its contents and form, but we’ve effectively locked it in place without any chance for expansion or rearrangement.
I think we see Boy Scouts in a similar vein. We see it as a means for the Scouts to accomplish advancement, hold meetings, plan campouts, and participate in merit badge sessions. We expect that the troop meeting will start and end on time and accomplish the items on the agenda. We want to see to it that the campout will have organized activities that take place in an orderly manner, that every dish and pot will be washed and put away neatly, and at the end of the day, every Scout will fulfill the requirements of everything they were expected to accomplish.
Scouts don’t see it that way, however – at least not Scouts who are there for the right reasons. Sure, the goals are there – most Scouts want to advance in rank and earn merit badges – but they also want to have fun with their friends and go camping. They want the freedom to roam and explore with their friends, to use their creativity to build a fort from found objects, to cook their own meals together, and to find out more about themselves and the world around them in the process.
That’s exactly what Scouting can give them – but only if we stop looking at it as a series of rigidly prescribed events. All too often we impose our adult structure and sense of order on what should be boys having fun with their friends. When we do that, the boys start to lose interest and retreat to their own world of more fulfilling activities. They drift away from Scouting and we lose the opportunity to instill the values and build good citizens and leaders. Of course, we do have a structure in Scouting, but that structure is always “rigidly flexible” – there are many ways to accomplish the aims. There are expectations, such as living by the Scout Oath and Scout Law, but those can and should be given to the boys to make into their own, for them to discover and interpret their meaning, and yes, to occasionally violate and learn from reflection.
Scouting is an ideal situation where adults can “back off” and let boys be boys under the umbrella of our values and methods. We don’t need to impose unnecessary structure in order to accomplish our aims. Our job as Scouters is to walk the fine line of mentoring and supporting the Scouts without being heavy-handed on organization and structured activities, all the while ensuring that the boys both take responsibility for their troop and have the freedom to play with their friends as they’d like.
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